Borracho Black Beans

 Cooking is therapeutic, nourishing, compassionate.  It is how I cope, how I take care of myself, how I show my affection.  Recently, now more than ever, cooking is also how I connect with the people who aren't here to sit down and share a meal with me.

All of us build up these associations in our minds, the neural connections that weave together our past and present experiences in a network of memories, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells.  Not surprisingly for me, my strongest associational triggers are food-related.


I have no memories of my father's mother, only pictures of her holding me when I was much, much smaller than I am now.  She is the woman whose recipes I've learned to make from my dad and her recipes, whose crepe pan we still use only for blintz and nothing else.  My dad has a picture of her and my grandfather, whom I also never had the chance to meet, when they were around my age.  The color of my hair is hers, and several of my facial features are echoes of her too.  For someone I don't remember, I think about her often.  Food is my only real connection with her, and with my identity as a Ukrainian woman.  Easter always reminds me of this -- cooking the food that she used to cook, exactly as she did -- and triggers my constructed memories of her, what she was like, what she would have been like if she were alive now.  


Most of the cooking I do is spontaneous -- a recipe piques my interest, some fruit or vegetable I love is finally in season, or random inspiration hits as I'm wandering through the store with an empty stomach.  But there are moments when I need to be comforted, when I want to feel not so alone, and my food becomes more deliberate.  These are the times when I rely on recipes like those from my Grandma Z.  Last weekend, Orthodox Easter and Catholic Easter coincided (I celebrate both), so Tor and I prepared a combined Russian-Greek dinner for eight people.  This weekend was dedicated to borracho beans, borracho meaning drunken from the addition of a bottle of beer (don't worry, they're not boozy-tasting, just faintly hop-y).  Jimmy has been making them in Chile quite often, with pinto beans I think, but I had a bag of black beans in my pantry that I wanted to use up.  We're both busy students, leading our lives on different continents, but sometimes a simple meal makes him seem not so far away.

Borracho Black Beans
adapted loosely from the Red Beans & Rice recipe in Cooking Texas Style

1 pound dried black beans
2 tablespoons butter (or bacon fat if you're not trying to be a good little vegetarian)
1 large onion
2 large carrots (or 4 small)
1 poblano pepper
1 serrano chili
2 enormous garlic cloves (or 4 regular)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt to taste
1 bottle medium/dark beer (like a lager)
2 c rice
Handful cilantro
Lime wedges


Rinse and sort through the beans, making sure there are no stray rocks (contrary to my 5-year-old-self's belief, rocks are not tasty).  Put the dry beans in a large bowl and cover them completely with water.  Let them soak for 24 hours.  Check on them once in a while to make sure they're still covered with water, and add water as needed.

Drain and rinse the soaked beans.  Put them in a stockpot and cover with an inch of water.  Bring them to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, covered with the lid tilted slightly, for 2 hours or so.

After an hour has passed, heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.  Meanwhile, dice the onion, carrot, and poblano pepper, and mince the serrano and garlic.  Once the butter is bubbling, add in the veggies and sauté until the onions have become translucent.  Add in salt, cumin, and coriander to your taste, and sauté until the vegetables have begun to caramelize.  If the water level in the pot of beans has reduced significantly, add more water so that there's an inch covering the beans.

At this point, the beans should have been cooking for 90 minutes total (that is, it should have been a half hour or so since you began prepping the veggies).  Add the cooked vegetables into the pot.  Taste the broth and season with salt if necessary.

In the pot where you just cooked the veggies, bring 4 cups of water to a boil.  Add in the rice, cover, and reduce to a simmer until cooked.  If the rice finishes before the beans, set aside and keep covered.

While the rice is cooking, add the beer into the beans.  Cook until the beans are soft and the broth has reduced and thickened.  Serve with the cooked rice, lime, and some cilantro.

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